The Story Before Snow White

Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

Chris Hemsworth
Jessica Chastain
Emily Blunt
Charlize Theron

Once upon a time, four years ago, Universal released a gritty live-action adaptation of the Snow White fairy tale. Visually striking but narratively hollow, the real surprise was the ropey acting delivered by talented individuals. It was received mildly but was overshadowed by an affair between the lead actress and the director and lo, time forgot about the release. Subsequently, I was rather surprised to learn Universal were marching ahead with their prequel story focusing on The Huntsman character, played by Chris Hemsworth. Some areas have been improved upon, others have sadly fallen by the wayside but all-in-all, it’s a bit meh.

Years before the events of Snow White And The Huntsman, Queen Ravena [Theron] ruled her kingdom with her sister Freya [Blunt] by her side but after a scandalous affair ends in pregnancy, Ravena warns Freya that love is a lie and her suitor will betray her. Sure enough, Freya finds her lover beside a smoking crib and shocked by this terrible act, unleashes a hitherto unknown magical ice force. Believing love is a sin, she moves north and establishes her own kingdom, ransacking villages and kidnapping children to train as her loyal army. Among these children are Eric [Hemsworth] and Sara [Chastain]. As they grow, they prove themselves noteworthy combatants and continue to bring her victory in the north. But as their strength grows, so too does their affection for one another; a crime in Freya’s kingdom. Once they are discovered, Sara is killed and Eric left for dead. Then the film quickly establishes that the events of Snow White And The Huntsman takes place and the story picks up there. At which point the audience is left a little bewildered, muttering, “Wait, what?”

I don’t know if this feature was always part of the grand design, based on the final shots of Snow White And The Huntsman, it’s arguable that it was considered. But even then, everything established here is extremely lazy, rife with afterthoughts and contradiction. First of all you have this unheard of sister and the fact that the entire prequel element takes place during the opening narration of the last film. Secondly, despite the marketing, you quickly come to realise that this is in fact both a prequel and a sequel; and the twenty or thirty minutes to bring us up to speed is led by heavy-handed narration making everything feel extremely rushed. And then there’s the myriad of absent characters which highlights how forced this film is.

Acting-wise, Winter’s War shows an improvement but still gives all those involved less to do. Hemsworth’s performance as Eric – I don’t know if he actually had a name last time round – works well enough and feels less drab than in Snow White And The Huntsman. Unfortunately, he is still rather two dimensional but the roguish charm sees him through. Chastain also performs decently but suffers from that insipid perpetuation of the strong female warrior; for some reason screenwriters have real issue writing decent female roles without making them either excessively fierce or abrasive. The overall effect is admittedly fine just boring. The Ice Queen demonstrates some interesting motivation and Blunt does well to squeeze what she can out of it but by the film’s culmination, the obviousness of the twist really only serves to demonstrate how much of a puppet she has been from start to end. Theron’s return would have been a nice reveal if it wasn’t one of the main marketing points and even then I would have been concerned as the level of ham on display in the last film was abhorrent. Thankfully, Theron dialed it back and we’re left with a pleasing supporting role. In my last review I praised the character design for the dwarves – from a visual standpoint only – as there was no proportionary uncanny valley or overt green-screen moments. Having said that, the characters themselves were arse-water. There was never any need to do anything other than cast real dwarves but for some reason (*cough* money *cough*) it was decided better known actors would be more fitting. Nick Frost was the only one to return, meaning we got three new dwarves, none of whom offer anything new except for a weird love dynamic that sticks to the old “only attracted to your own kind” thing. Having said that, the interracial love angle felt really weird in The Hobbit, so who knows? The real character of note was actually the notable absence of Kristen Stewart; the title character of the other film, she is referenced a fair amount but fails to make an appearance (save a reverse shot of a double) leaving the whole endeavour feeling pointless and disconnected.

The production design is very impressive and carries a lot of this release’s success. From the costume work, to the hair, make-up and set design, everything is rich with detail and life. There’s also a slightly lighter air to proceedings and one would argue, as far as the sequel section is concerned, that’s how it should be, what with Snow White’s reign restoring.. the balance.. or hope.. or whatever her being on the throne achieved. Yet, in the hands of this new creative team, Winter’s War feels somehow aesthetically different; there’s a distinct loss of visual flare. Say what you want about Rupert Sanders’ actions off-camera, he had a knack for exciting and dramatic visual sequences. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, his replacement, does a commendable job but it’s all very vanilla and paint-by-numbers, never really bringing anything new or thrilling to the mix.

Much like its predecessor, the story is chained to the trappings of the fairytale genre, which utilises simply drawn characters, motivations and scenarios but leaves the whole proceeding feeling incredibly formulaic. The basic dialogue is beyond weak and some of the one-liners are amazingly atrocious. Furthermore, with little actual plot per se, the nearly two hour slog boils down to little more than a trek from A to B punctuated with fairly uninspired action/fight sequences. And yet there are hints of promising storytelling and filmmaking. Case in point, the ice-wall twist actually works rather well but the script doesn’t have the intellectual chops to play it up properly and a good concept is largely wasted.

This film’s ultimate sin is that it is insufferably bland. The groundwork laid in the last film wasn’t strong enough to support another outing and while it’s not overly offensive to the senses, it’s not worth seeking out either. The real frustration is that this film went through countless stages of production, attracted talented people and churned out something so horribly mediocre. Honestly, is this is the best one can do with Hemsworth, Chastain, Blunt, Theron, Frost and Brydon? I can’t imagine there will be another instalment but then I half-thought that about Snow White And The Huntsman, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Release Date:
8th April 2016

The Scene To Look Out For:
Sitting, writing this review, I honestly couldn’t think of a highlighted scene. I thought back on the movie and tried to hone in on anything overly terrible or praiseworthy and drew a blank. I suppose, as I stated earlier, the ice wall sequence and the ramifications of said sequence are quite interesting but a combination of trailers and piss-poor writing undermines anything of use there.

Notable Characters:
My highlighted character is actually someone who’s missing. The choice to leave out Snow White could be argued well enough, especially in sequel territory but when a pivotal role is absent from the prequel, it’s just weird and frankly terrible writing. In the last film, Queen Ravena’s right hand is her creepy albino brother, Finn, played by the equally creepy Sam Spruell. This guy is depicted as a child during Ravena’s backstory and continues to lead her dark army as her power grows, then some bad shit happens and he dies. Finn is the brother of both Ravena and now Freya but neither mentioned nor referenced throughout this film at all. I don’t know why he was abandoned or not considered for a recasting but of all the absences, this is the weirdest. And this is why you need to think this shit through when writing your stories, people! In a section designed to focus on a standout performance, I’ve waffled on about someone who isn’t even in this film!

Highlighted Quote:
“Poor widower. That story must have wet the eyes of many a young woman.. maybe more than their eyes”

In A Few Words:
“A rather dispassionate, dull release that, while containing a few glimmers of potential, largely flounders around aimlessly”

Total Score: